The Empathy Deficit in our Politics

Whatever happens on November 8th, much will be written about the 2016 election. However, apart from the obvious topics, the lack of empathy in our political discourse deserves deeper scrutiny. For the first time in a generation, a major party Presidential nominee has given voice to some of the worst prejudices (xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and disrespect for the disabled) that permeate our society, while simultaneously disregarding our tradition of limited and constitutionally checked executive power with calls to imprison a political opponent and curtail the freedom of the press. But, as Edward R. Murrow famously declared when our civil liberties were threatened by a dangerous demagogue in the last century: “the fault…is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

Like many members of the tech community, I was disgusted at the news that Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey have openly supported and funded the aforementioned political campaign. In fact, I have been vocal in my opposition to that candidate since the primary season and try to spend as much time as I can volunteering at the local campaign office of his opponent in the general election. However, I found myself in the minority on 10/16, for suggesting on Twitter that:

Peter Thiel’s effusive support for the most vile candidate in a generation reflects very poorly on his character. 1/2
But doesn’t commitment to both tolerance/diversity and free speech make retaliating against him for his political beliefs wrong. 2/2

Since then, Ellen Pao announced that her company had chosen to disassociate from companies affiliated with Y-Combinator since Y-Combinator refused to part ways with Thiel. Chamath Palihapitiya said at a conference that he would “absolutely” kick Peter Thiel off his board. And, even my tweets resulted in a Twitter pile-on the likes of which my low-profile account has not seen before.

There is no doubt that Thiel’s and Luckey’s actions run contrary to many of the values that are important to our community, and I understand the instinct to disassociate from them in addition to condemning their behavior. Given the nature of this election, that instinct is likely being felt within communities across the country as members decide to advocate for candidates or positions that run contrary to the community’s values. However, doing so only serves to further polarize our already deeply divided society.

Fragmentation of the media and self-reinforcing media echo chambers leave different political constituencies with different sets of facts. Self-sorting makes red districts redder and blue districts bluer. It has been said our nation is more politically divided than it has been since the Civil War. The solution to these problems that plague our democracy is not the enforcement of our own political orthodoxy, but rather a quest for empathy and mutual understanding. The only hope for reconciliation, and a modern reconstruction, is to understand, engage with, and attempt to persuade those we disagree with.

It is hard to believe that 12 years have passed since a young Illinois State Senator inspired the nation to confront the “politics of cynicism” with the unifying assertion that we are more than “red states” and “blue states”, we are the “United States of America.” He ended his speech with a message that rings true for 2016:

I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs, and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices and meet the challenges that face us….And this country will reclaim its promise. And out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.